How I procrastinated my way into becoming a prolific writer

(And how you can, too!)

A few Fridays ago, I did a word count on all the client projects I’d worked on that week. Turns out I’d written 25,738 words worth of copy & content in just five days.

That’s over 5,000 words a day!

So yeah, when it comes to output, I’m a bit of a machine. I can crank out a huge volume of good-to-go content in a very short period of time. It’s one of my strongest gifts as a writer – and one for which I’m exceedingly grateful.

But I wasn’t born this way… It’s something I developed over time, thanks to a “bad” habit that caused me a large amount of shame for many years.

What’s my terrible secret?

Well, the fact is, I’m a horrible procrastinator. (Or an awesome one, depending on how you look at it.)

Ever since high school, I’ve given myself the smallest amount of time possible to complete a writing assignment. If I had a 2,000-word essay to write, I’d start writing it at 8 pm the night before it was due. Once, for grade 11 English, I had to give a five-minute speech in front of the whole class — and rather than spend time doing any advance preparation, I chose a topic I knew extremely well (my 1980 red Ford Pinto with the Starsky and Hutch stripe, oh yeah, baby) and made up the speech on the spot.

I got an A – for audacity, I’m guessing.

After high school, my procrastination habits got worse. I had worked really hard during high school to get the scholarship money I needed to go to university. But once I was actually AT university, I felt like I’d earned the right to relax. (Which meant going to the pub or nightclub every Friday and Saturday – and, um, the occasional Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday as well.)

As a result, every university paper I ever wrote was completed over the course of a single, horrible all-nighter fuelled by endless pots of coffee. I can remember falling asleep at 6 a.m. and setting the alarm for an hour later so I could make my 8:30 class in time to hand in my paper then turn around and go home to bed.

Obviously, I didn’t learn very much about the subjects I was writing about… but at that point in my life, I didn’t much care. I was too busy partying with my friends and trying to figure out who the heck I was as a person to be bothered with the actual “acquire valuable skills and knowledge” part of university.

Yet despite my ongoing mission to see how little time I could spend on an assignment and still get an A, there was a part of me that felt a lot of guilt about my procrastination habits.

I was ashamed to admit that, left to my own devices, I’d rather go to the pub almost every night or read pulpy sci-fi novels until 4 a.m. than go to class or do my assignments. It didn’t strike me as the best way to take advantage of my expensive post-secondary education and learn something that would help me in the “real world.”

What do you mean, Century Club and shotgunning aren't real world skills?
What do you mean, shotgunning beer isn’t a real-world skill?

I spent so many years beating myself up over my bad habits that it took a long time for me to realize that all of those painful, bleary-eyed all-nighters had taught me a skill more valuable than anything I ever learned in class. Without consciously realizing it, I had developed a writing process that allowed me to open the floodgates and produce a large volume of high quality content in record time – whenever I needed.

Thank you, young adult angst!

As you can imagine, this skill has come in pretty handy during the sixteen years I’ve been a professional writer.

Here’s the “crank it out” process I developed – and some tips on how to make it work for you when you’ve left a writing project to the very last minute:

1. Write about a topic you know really well

By the time you sit down to write, you should be clear on your topic and have at least some idea of what you want to say about it. It’s hard to bang out something in a hurry – something of quality, at least – if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

That’s why, when given a list of assignment topics, I always chose the one I was most familiar with – something based on a book I’d already read or a topic I’d already researched and spent a lot of time thinking about. When you’re in a big hurry to produce, the less time you have to spend on research, the better.

So if you devote a decent chunk of your free time to filling your brain with interesting and useful information, you’ll always have something to write about!

2. Become a master of structure

When I was in grade 12, my English teacher – who was fresh out of university – gave me a gift I will forever cherish: she taught our class proper essay structure.

This is what it looked like:

  1. INTRO: must grab attention and interest (first 1-3 sentences)
  2. THESIS: should be provocative enough readers to keep reading (first 1-2 paragraphs)
  3. BODY: arguments and examples that support your thesis (this forms the bulk of your article or essay be sure to include at least three arguments to support your thesis and use credible and convincing examples to back them up)
  4. CONCLUSION: the end mirrors the beginning. Reiterate your thesis and briefly summarize the evidence that proves your argument.

Without a doubt, this essay structure is what enabled me to get A’s on pretty much every paper I wrote.

Since then, I’ve learned different structures for a wide variety of writing projects: newspaper articles, press releases, blog posts, ebooks, websites, salespages, and so on. No matter what I’m writing, I always refresh my understanding of what structure I’m going to use BEFORE I start writing because I know it’s going to make the whole process so much easier.

Why is structure important? Because it helps you present your ideas in a way that makes them easy to understand. Each paragraph follows logically upon the previous one so your readers can see exactly what you’re saying – and why.

Without structure, one idea follows haphazardly after the next, and the connections are unclear. The reader is left rudderless and confused about what the main point of the article or essay is.

On top of that, structure gives you a very easy way to organize your ideas in a hurry!

3. Worship the almighty deadline

I may be a procrastinator, but I have a religious appreciation for deadlines. Whenever I sit down to write an article, I give myself a hard deadline and do whatever I have to do in to meet it. This might result in the occasional late night, but it allows me to get the project done in a concentrated chunk of time.

If I viewed deadlines as suggestions rather than commandments, an article that usually takes me five hours to write would probably take days. But when I feel the pressure of the sand draining through the hourglass, I’m far more likely to write my way around any obstacles that pop up and refuse to let myself get caught up in hesitation or indecision.

4. Take the time to brainstorm

When you need to write something in a hurry, nothing is more daunting than a blank page on your computer screen.

That’s why I ease myself into it through brainstorming. This step lets me get all the ideas out of my head without feeling any pressure to organize them in a particular order.

I usually set myself a strict time limit for the brainstorming phase. I set a timer for 30 minutes – two hours (depending on how big the project is and how much time I have to write it) then I grab a notebook and pen and write down every single idea I can think of. When I feel like I’ve run out of things to say, I force myself to keep writing until the end of the allotted time – because you never know when you’re going to get a brilliant idea. Sometimes you have to dig for it.

5. Organize your thoughts into an outline

Once I have finished my brainstorming on paper, I’ll take my notes and type them up. As I do so, I highlight the most powerful ideas and look for recurring themes. I’ll put the most powerful sentences at the top and clump the sentences that seem to go together beneath them.

Then I’ll review what I’ve got and figure out how to fit it into the structure I’m using for that particular project. For example, if I see an idea that will make a powerful thesis, I will put it at the top of the outline page. Then I’ll copy and paste all the supporting arguments and evidence beneath it.

Once the outline is done, it’s time to get to work!

6. Spend the most time on what matters most

When I would write essays in university, I’d spend the first few hours in a total panic because it would take me FOREVERRRRRRR to write the first couple of paragraphs. When you start writing at 7 pm and you only have two paragraphs completed by 10 pm, it’s enough to make you fear your chances of hitting your 9 am deadline the next day!

It took me a long time to realize there was a reason why I spent so long on my introduction and thesis: they are by far the most important elements of an essay! Once you know how you want to begin (your intro) and what you want to say (your thesis), the rest of piece flows like gravy.

I found that I spent almost as much time working on the first two paragraphs of my paper as I spent on the entire body of the essay.

Here’s how my time usually broke down:

  • 40% of my time on my intro
  • 50% on the body copy
  • 10% on the conclusion

These days when I write blog posts, articles, and website copy, I find that my time breaks down in much the same way. The entire piece is contained within the seed of the first few sentences. Get clear on them and the rest of your writing will bloom beautifully.

7. Press the pedal to the metal and don’t look back

When the clock’s ticking, there’s no time to second-guess yourself. Once you have your intro and thesis finished, get ready to start typing and not take a break until you’ve finished the entire body of your project. Don’t spend too much time trying to find “le mot juste” to describe what you’re going to say – just write it the way you would say it to a friend.

You’re not trying to create a breathtaking work of art here – unless you are, in which case, WHY DID YOU WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE? You slacker 😉 — you’re just trying to provide arguments and evidence that support the main point of your thesis.

When you finish the body and are ready to write your conclusion, only then should you go back to the beginning and read what you’ve written. Jot down your thesis and the main arguments that back it up, then write the conclusion. It should serve as a kind of “book end” to your introduction by reiterating the thesis and briefly summarizing your reasons why it’s true.

8. Reserve enough time for a last-minute review

Once you have finished the conclusion, you have earned the right to take a short break! Grab some shuteye if you can – if you’ve worked late into the night or wee hours of the morning. If that luxury isn’t available, get up and stretch for a few minutes. Take a shower. Go for a quick walk. Do something that will give your brain a break.

Once you’re able to view your writing with fresh eyes, read it over one last time from beginning to end and make any edits that occur to you. This is often the stage where those elusive “mots justes” will occur to you. You’ll also identify ways to make your ideas pop by deleting unnecessary words and phrases and playing with the sentence structure a bit – not to mention catching any typos you might have missed.

Once you get to the end a second time, you’re done! Send that baby off to wherever it needs to go.

That’s how you crank out a large amount of good-quality content in a hurry. And I have my procrastination to thank for it. It’s funny how something that seemed so bad at the time turned out to have such a positive impact on my life and career.

(I can’t wait to see what my visceral antipathy towards housework is going to do for me…)

So, if you’d like to write a lot more copy in a lot less time, give these tips a whirl — and let me know how they work for you!

 

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11 Responses to “How I procrastinated my way into becoming a prolific writer”

  1. I only read if something is of interest to me and I only finish reading it if I really like what I am reading. I not only started reading this post, I read every word and finished reading it. Loved it. Really great. I had an English teacher who taught brainstorming. I was able to turn C+ writing into A+ writing with help from my fiancee’s, now was-band, high vocabulary. LOL

  2. Great post Erin! Love the comment about if you are trying to create something breath taking work of art why did you wait until the last minute. This is a good reminder to inspired imperfect action. Victoria xox

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